Tony Parkin reports back from the UK's own digital creativity 'Oscars', Apps for Good
The Apps for Good Annual Launch is always a wonderfully joyous occasion. Removed from the nerve-wracking ‘will we or won’t we’ tension of the midsummer competition finals, this event is an entirely celebratory affair, at which the winning schools get to show off the apps created as a result of their efforts.
And this year marked yet another stage in the maturity of this always-impressive organisation, as the acclaimed Changes app takes it into puberty.
In earlier years apps have always broken new ground, and addressed the issues relevant to their student creators. In the first pilot year I remember seeing an excellent app that was a translation tool to help communications between parents and teachers at parents evenings at a school serving an EAL community. But as the project matures, we are starting to see more challenging or controversial topics being addressed by the new cohorts, and this year really breaks new ground.
Those of us teaching about puberty quite often get it wrong
My first conversation with the incredibly articulate and forthright Joss, one of the creators of the Changes app (see team photo above), made it very clear in conversation that those of us teaching about puberty quite often get it wrong. “The language used is often not age appropriate,” explained Joss, “and sometimes the issues are presented in a way that can make pupils feel anxious, rather than informed”.
So, with a team made up of female students from Coleridge Primary, in London, the Changes app was developed. By girls, for girls, and addressing the challenging issues of puberty. I suspect that few adults would have dreamed up the idea of gamifying such a sensitive subject, nor of having an activity that involved lobbing hormones at various bodily targets. But this team were unfazed by such concepts, and the Changes app is almost certainly the most original approach to the topic of puberty that you will encounter.
Inevitably, with a puberty app by girls and for girls, the subject of boys had to be discussed. Joss again took no hostages. “Well, we did talk about including boys” she said, “and started thinking about how to do it, but in the end we decided to stick with what we knew best. And anyway, it would have cost a lot more to include a boys section”. A wonderful piece of combined pragmatism and rationalisation that sent us smiling but impressed on our way to the next group.
Another app which addresses difficult and potentially controversial issues is 'Lilies'. Bereavement is something which we all encounter, but here is an app created by teenagers for teenagers facing the challenges of loss. The evidence of the power of social media is clearly there in the apps concept. But so is the recognition that bereavement requires the careful consideration of additional sensitivities and finer control.
Yes, you can share feelings of loss, and build photo memorials, but you can totally control how this shared, and who you share with. Upsetting remarks can be instantly removed from your timeline, and you can be as anonymous as you wish if you want to share your grief in a very private way.
Links to supportive organisations had been most invaluable, I was told, with the Sue Ryder organisation and Coop Funeralcare being singled out for special mention by the team. Tentatively I probed what had been the most challenging part of creating such a challenging app. "Oh, agreeing on the logo," the team from Stratford Girls’ Grammar chorused. "We kept getting things back that we didn’t like," they laughed.
An important moment of joy and honesty from an impressive team
It was rather like that moment at a funeral where someone cracks a joke, which lightens the mood, reminds you of the positive aspects of the departed, but still has you looking around feeling slightly guilty. But it was an important moment of joy and honesty from an impressive team with such a sensitive topic to address.
Schools that succeed in competition in one particular Apps for Good year tend to build up pupil and teacher expertise that sees a subsequent group succeeding in the following year. This year there were again familiar school names back at the launch event. Not one, but two teams from Westfield Junior School in Yately.
Fear Nothing, an animated app to help you overcome the fear of spiders. There was something distinctly creepy about watching the pupils play with digital spiders, but they assured me it really did help make their analogue live equivalents less scary! The second app was Allergy Basket, which helps people keep track of the allergy-free foods their family can eat via allowing them to create shopping lists by scanning barcodes.The first presented
Karine George, the former head of Westfield Juniors who introduced Apps for Good to the school has now moved on, but the staff involved have ensured that Apps for Good remains embedded. They also realised that running it in Year 6 meant that all student expertise was constantly leaving for the world of secondary.
As a result the school has now got Year 5 involved too, so that they can incorporate peer mentoring and build up strategic capacity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more teams back in the future.
Though competition is clearly hotting up in school app development, this was the first year for a while that no group from Wick, from the northern most tip of Scotland, made it through to the final winners group – though they came mighty close.
'Donate it' links unwanted household items with appropriate charities
Each app on display has won in its own particular category, with each category having separate sponsors. The app winning the Sustainable Communities category, sponsored by Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, was Donate it, created by the impressive Georgia-Leigh and Sina, from Connell Sixth Form College in Manchester.
Donate it connects people who have unwanted household goods with appropriate charities, who can then sell the unwanted items to raise money for their cause. It's a neat and simple idea that epitomises the Apps for Good ethos.
The team also exemplifies one of the great strengths of Apps for Good in ensuring girls are equally engaged in digital projects in an unforced and non-preferential way. Get the project right, and as many girls will engage as boys, and Apps for Good people feel justly proud that you are just as likely to find groups of girls winning these prestigious awards as boys, and without any compromises being necessary.
DiPloy, came from another school with previous success, Denbigh School in Luton. DiPloy helps people with disabilities who want to get back into work build confidence and find employment. It was inspired by one of the team, Omar, who felt his disabled cousin did not get equitable treatment when it came to job-seeking.The final winning app,
The app allows the user to undergo a practice interview, responding to video questions, and includes the ability to record their answers so they can review how they did. The team have also hooked up with Evenbreak, the not-for-profit organisation that assists the disabled find employment, so that as the Diploy user gains confidence they can move on through the app to seeking work. Another great idea which adds value and links to existing services and organisations.
Now I think it’s fair to say that last year’s Denbigh group, with WeConnect, were not backward in coming forward — a pretty full-on and assertive team. This year, the Diploy team is made up of much more reserved individuals.
The confidence factor — Apps for Good's forte
The feedback from Emma Darcy, the teacher who had been working with the team at Denbigh, was that she was especially pleased with the opportunities that winning Apps for Good had offered these students to grow in confidence and public speaking. Offered a chance to speak at the BBC, and unfazed by the impressive limo that turned up for them, their interview went off without a hitch, stumble or awkward silence – testament to just how much progress had been made in the confidence department.
The team members recognised this about themselves as we discussed their work, and as further real evidence of progress made, said they were happy for this to be mentioned here. A lovely group, with whom it was a real delight to talk. But that is something I can say about each group in this impressive set of winners.
Public speaking, and her new found delight in it, was also mentioned by Katie (pictured left) in her input from the platform as an Apps for Good Fellow. The alumni from previous competitions were again there in numbers, making sure the event ran smoothly. They also reminded those of us who regularly attend Apps for Good events just how they have blossomed.
Those who remember Mohima from previous years will not be surprised to hear that her career arc continues to impress, and she has just landed a role at an asset management company for her first job after university. We were not surprised when she described a session with a senior person at the company, at which she had explained what she felt the organisation needed to do to improve. That’s the sort of confidence Apps for Good helps foster, though one suspects Mohima would always have been a fairly assertive intern.
Debbie Forster, co-CEO, has always referred to Apps for Good as ‘family’. And as sometimes happens at family gatherings there was a slight hint of sadness as this was her last event running the awards at Apps for Good. Hosting the evening this time was shared between her and the new managing director, Heather Picov (pictured right). New MD maybe, but Heather is already ‘AfG family’, having been brought in to solve a challenge four years ago, and never leaving.
Of course there is no real reason for sadness, as Debbie isn’t actually leaving Apps for Good, and will continue to be part of the family. The next day she was off to Buckingham Palace to be awarded her MBE, just hoping to find time to master her curtsy between events. Which she will have undoubtedly managed splendidly, as Debbie always does.
Another great set of apps, another bunch of inspiring students, and further developments for the family that is Apps for Good. Those of us lucky enough to be invited as guests invariably leave feeling upbeat, confident that our digital future will be safe in the capable hands of students such as these. Also convinced that the stories that girls don’t get digital are ridiculously exaggerated. In the face of the negativity that sometimes surrounds digital education, it is no mean feat that Apps for Good can offer such a wonderfully positive view of the future, without fail, at every opportunity.